April 15, 2007

Visually impaired pilot aims to raise 1m pounds with microlight trip

Muscat: Miles Hilton-Barber is visually impaired but his dexterity in handling mundane tasks as well as tackling awe-inspiring feats such as flying a microlight halfway around the world makes the Briton's life straight out of Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum.

With his latest adventure of embarking on a 13,000-mile journey in a microlight Hilton-Barber aims to raise £1 million to help restore blind people's sight in the developing world through the Standard Chartered Bank's Seeing Is Believing programme.

He has several commendable feats to his credit but the humility of this 55-year-old father-of-three is evident when, in an exclusive interview with Gulf News in Muscat on Wednesday, he says: "For me the big achievement will not be a blind man flying halfway around the world but a blind man giving the gift of sight to thousands of children and adults around the world who can't see just because of lack of money."

The international motivational speaker advocates optimism.

"I believe in looking at opportunities and not barriers."

His blindness did not prove a barrier to his determination to fly and he worked towards his goal in spite of the fact that he was rejected by his country's air force because of his poor eyesight.

Hilton-Barber lost his sight at the age of 25 due to a genetic disorder but his visually impaired brother's daring venture to sail solo from Africa to Australia inspired him to overcome all barriers.

Flying records

Now he creates flying records and sound is his biggest ally.

"All commercial pilots have to depend on instruments," and that, he says, inspired him to work towards his own goal.

He mooted an idea of developing a flying instrument that would "speak" instructions.

"I proposed to a software company in Britain that it could develop my idea of a instrument that would speak to me and now I use that same instrument [strapped on his leg] to fly."

The instrument merely tells where he is or in which direction he is heading, he has to decide the course.

"The instrument is still a prototype and we make changes as we progress," says Hilton-Barber, who incidentally holds the record of flying a microlight to 20,000 feet in the UK.

"The earlier record by a normal pilot was 10,000 feet," he says.

The tall and upright adventurer has in the last six years set numerous world records while undertaking extreme endurance events in Siberia and across the Sahara, Gobi, Qatar and Mojave deserts.

He has also climbed the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro and Mount Blanc, scuba-dived 12 miles under the Red Sea, hot-air ballooned over the Nevada Desert, and man-hauled a sledge over 400 kilometres across Antarctica, set the world lap record for a blind driver on the Malaysian Grand Prix Circuit, and circumnavigated the entire world, using over 80 different forms of transport.

Hilton-Barber is the first blind person to fly over the English Channel in a microlight, holds the British duel microlight high-altitude record and has wing-walked on a fully aerobatic 450 HP Boeing Steersman bi-plane.

He has endless feats to his credit, such as being the first blind person to do the solo kamikaze skeleton run down the 5G Olympic bobsleigh track in Lillehammer, Norway, and has also participated in the toughest desert ultra-marathon in the world through Death Valley, California.

Now he is flying a microlight more than halfway around the world from London to Sydney and has to rely on revolutionary speech-output technology. Of course, as is mandatory, a sighted co-pilot accompanies him.

"Brian Milton was with me up to Cyprus and then Richard Meredith-Hardy joined me as my sighted co-pilot," he said.

Hilton-Barber also talked about the turbulent weather on his way from London to Muscat.

"We were tossed in the sky like a leaf in a storm over the Saudi desert and snow in Jordan froze us as temperatures dropped to minus 25C ," he said.

The adventurer fears nothing and keeps adding one feat to another to his name.

"Life does not count good [or bad] cards, but in playing a poor hand well."

His advice is: "Don't worry about what God has given you, make the best of it."

Hilton-Barber with his feats has proved nothing is impossible.

Aim is to restore sight in developing countries

- Microlight: Lightweight, slow-flying aeroplanes are commonly called ultralight or microlight.
- Seeing is Believing, the Standard Chartered Bank's unique community investment programme, aims to make a difference to the lives of 10 million people by raising $10 million by World Sight Day 2010.
- Miles Hilton-Barber started his voyage on March 7 from London and flew over Cyprus, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and has taken a four-day break in Muscat.
- Miles Hilton-Barber flies five to six hours daily before taking a break.
- From Muscat he will fly tomorrow to Gwadar in Pakistan for refuelling and then stop over at Karachi.
- He is accompanied by a sighted pilot as is mandatory by law.
- He aims to raise £1 million (Dh7 million) to donate to developing countries to restore the sight of children and adults in these countries.

By Sunil K. Vaidya
Source: archive.gulfnews.com

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